Limit the use of hate symbols on public property

Originally published in Newsday on February 08, 2021.

It should have been clear not so long after 1865 that the Confederate battle flag was a symbol of a failed, racist rebellion — the violent effort by Southern states to preserve slavery and secede from the United States.

That only became clearer in the decades and century-plus after, as the flag grew to symbolize not only the South’s Lost Cause but also white supremacy and Jim Crow discrimination.

This is the core importance of State Sen. Anna Kaplan’s proposed legislation banning public entities like fire and police departments and school districts from displaying symbols of hate such as the Confederate flag or Nazi paraphernalia, with limited exceptions that include when the symbol appears in a book or serves an educational or historical purpose.

The Great Neck Democrat’s bill on the subject comes after a much-publicized incident last summer in which a Confederate flag decorated a Brookhaven Fire Department truck during a Patchogue parade. That is on top of the Levittown Fire Department drill team’s logo for many years including a man in a gray Civil War uniform holding a Confederate flag.

That kind of imagery is unacceptable, a point made starkly clear by the recent upsurge of white supremacist incidents around the country, from Charleston, South Carolina, where a mass shooter with a predilection for the battle flag entered a historic Black church to commit murder in 2015, to Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists rallied in 2017, sporting images of the flag and other icons of hate.

It has belatedly dawned on society at large that the battle flag isn’t just a way to symbolize rebellion, youthful or otherwise. It’s now a clear message of white supremacy — that Black Americans, Jews and immigrants aren’t fully welcome wherever the flag furls.

Kaplan’s office says that rules about what can be displayed on these public properties are a patchwork across the state, and her legislation would bring some uniformity. That makes sense, as does her paired bill prohibiting municipal officers or employees from displaying political advertisements on or within public buildings, vehicles, equipment or location.

There has recently been a Donald Trump flag at the Levittown Fire Department house, and during election season political signs are often found on local town and county properties.

Kaplan’s bills, however, must be carefully worded and reviewed by lawmakers to make sure they don’t infringe on free speech rights, no matter how unpopular or populist the view. Most important, the measures underscore that advocates of either political party or policy sentiment should not be able to appropriate public property to disseminate their message.

Neither political signs nor symbols of hate belong in public places and Albany lawmakers must make that clear by passing this legislation in this session.

It’s a step toward a civic culture that is open to all, antagonistic to none.

— The editorial board